Bernie Sanders’ ‘Jewish Essay’: Praiseworthy or Problematic?

A number of Third Narrative colleagues were eager to discuss Sen. Bernie Sanders’ article in Jewish Currents magazine, “How to Fight Antisemitism.”  Steven Lubet has blogged twice on Sanders’ essay, beginning with praise for Sanders lauding (in the Senator’s words) “the enormous achievement of establishing a democratic homeland for the Jewish people after centuries of displacement and persecution,” and for acknowledging (also in Sanders’ words) that “some criticism of Israel can cross the line into antisemitism, especially when it denies the right of self-determination to Jews.”  Still, while Prof. Lubet agrees with Sanders’ unhappiness over the ongoing occupation, he sees the Senator as unfair in seemingly laying all the blame for the ongoing conflict on Israel.  

In Prof. Lubet’s second blog post, he comments on the very slightly different version of Sanders’ piece in The Guardian, noting his disappointment that Sanders did not comment on the antisemitism scandal rocking the British Labour party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.  Lubet further notes that Sanders never cites specific instances when leftist criticisms of Israel “cross the line into antisemitism.”  For example, Sanders was silent when after the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) overwhelmingly passed a BDS resolution against Israel in 2017, the hall erupted with “raucous chants of ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’.”  Lubet continues, “In Bernie’s own terms, the chant was anti-Semitic. A call for Israel’s destruction obviously ‘denies the right of self-determination to Jews’.” 

David Schraub has also blogged about Sanders’ essay, but with more emphasis on reactions to it.  First, he found himself “hard-pressed to think of another such essay by a prominent politician [as opposed to a scholar or news analyst] on this subject that I like better.”  In response to criticisms of Sanders for accepting the support of Linda Sarsour and Representative Tlaib, individuals known for harsh anti-Israel or anti-Zionist views, Schraub turns this around to ask: 

What do we make of Sarsour and Tlaib’s (etc.) supposedly extreme and uncompromising hostility to Israel and all of its supporters, given that they both have enthusiastically endorsed a Jewish candidate who has publicly and explicitly declared his affinity for Israel, the need for progressives to respect its accomplishments, and the antisemitism latent in calling for its dissolution?     

Ralph Seliger’s sole criticism is “that Palestinian and other Arab extremist groups are not named and condemned.  I agree with his criticism of Netanyahu; why not call out Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad?  Why not draw a connection between Arab attacks and threats against Israeli civilians and the success to date of rightwing Israelis to expand settlements and deepen the occupation as part of a vicious cycle of tit for tat?”

Jeff Weintraub interacts in brackets with segments of an analysis in the Canadian Jewish News:  

In the article for the left-wing magazine Jewish Currents, the Democratic presidential candidate says he is proud to be Jewish and to support Israel. He also argues that denying the right of Jews to self-determination is anti-Semitic.

[JW:  Yes, Sanders did say that.]

Otherwise, Sanders focuses on the rise of anti-Semitism in the U.S., mostly as it manifests on the right, and criticizes President Donald Trump, but he also notes the existence of anti-Semitism from the left.

[JW: I think that last point is a generous reading–perhaps with a touch of wishful thinking–since this piece never does explicitly mention left-wing forms of anti-semitism in the US or elsewhere … but yes, one COULD interpret some statements by Sanders as implying the existence of certain kinds of anti-Zionist and anti-semitic bias on the left.]

‘I think it is very important for everyone, but particularly for progressives, to acknowledge the enormous achievement of establishing a democratic homeland for the Jewish people after centuries of displacement and persecution’, Sanders writes about Israel.

[JW: I agree.]

‘It is true that some criticism of Israel can cross the line into anti-Semitism, especially when it denies the right of self-determination to Jews, or when it plays into conspiracy theories about outsized Jewish power’.

[JW: I agree with that too.]

[….] ‘My pride and admiration for Israel lives alongside my support for Palestinian freedom and independence’, he says. ‘I reject the notion that there is any contradiction there’. [….]”

[JW: Me too.]

Stan Nadel’s take was “not on Bernie and the issue of Israel/Palestine, but on his promoting the notion that Antisemitism is mainly a white supremacy thing.”  

While that is true of the synagogue shootings and attacks recently outside of NYC, Bernie is being disingenuous when it comes to his use of New York City [Police Department] statistics. Surely he must be aware of the fact that most of the Antisemitic violence in New York City was carried out by African-Americans. This isn’t a contested issue. It’s been publicized by major papers like the New York Times and Bernie can’t be unaware of that fact. So attributing Antisemitic attacks in New York City to advocates of “a whites-only America” is engaging in a bait and switch maneuver–one that implicitly denies the reality of Black Antisemitism, along with its links to his own spokespeople like Linda Sarsour who are admirers of the leading Black Antisemitic agitators in the US, Louis Farrakhan and his NOI.  

It seems to me that while there is much to admire about Bernie, he is in some ways locked into a leftist orthodoxy that prevents him from facing Antisemitism when it comes from sources that make many politically correct leftists uncomfortable–fellow leftists, Blacks, Muslims, or anyone designated as part of an oppressed group. He does make a very feeble effort to acknowledge the existence of some Antisemitism deriving from opposition to Israeli policies, but drops that line of thought like a hot potato and totally ignores Antisemitism from some feminists, some Black activists, some Muslims, & etc. If he were a more self-reflective individual, I might suspect him of being dishonest here, but in this case I believe it is a function of a failure (and unwillingness) on his part to think this through and consider the ways in which his ideology fails to account for the more complex reality of the issue.